Summer always raises the risk of heat-related illness, especially for those who work outside, but wearing a face mask to slow the spread of COVID-19 shouldn't make it any more dangerous, experts said.
The key to staying safe and comfortable is to wear the right kind of mask and, as always, remember to hydrate and acclimatize before spending long periods in the heat, said Christopher Sulmonte, project administrator for the Biocontainment Unit at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Sulmonte also provides training on personal protective equipment for front-line health care workers, working with the Maryland Department of Health.
Cloth face masks prevent the spread of respiratory droplets by people who are infected and might not even know it. They are recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and increasingly mandated by states and businesses. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says it "generally recommends that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work."
"Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus—particularly when used universally within a community setting," CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield said on July 14. "All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families and their communities."
Sulmonte noted that masks have been widely used to control virus outbreaks in warm climates with no associated outbreaks of heat illness. "For the vast majority of people, there is clear evidence that masking is effective and not harmful," he said. "It's something that we have used in the past in other public health events all over the world in many different climates."
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So, what makes a mask effective and relatively comfortable? The key to effectiveness is to cover the mouth and nose with two layers of something. Choosing the material can be like making any other clothing choice, Sulmonte said. "You wouldn't wear a heavy black sweatshirt in the middle of the summer," he said.
Here are a few tips for comfort in the heat:
- Use a breathable fabric, like cotton, as opposed to a polyester that can hold heat to the face.
- Light colors are better; black absorbs heat and will make you feel hotter.
- Bring a spare mask or two and change out if you get sweaty. A damp mask can cling to your face and be uncomfortable.
- Wash the mask after each wearing. It will feel better and be safer.
- Follow guidelines for heat safety and stay hydrated.
Face masks are most important in situations where people cannot be at least 6 feet apart. For that reason, the CDC said, "outdoor workers may prioritize use of cloth face coverings when in close contact with other people, like during group travel or shift meetings, and remove face coverings when social distancing is possible."
In its guidance on face coverings at work, OSHA said in cases where cloth face coverings could exacerbate heat illness, employers can provide surgical masks or face shields as alternatives.
OSHA Heat Campaign Reminds Employers of Responsibilities
With or without masks added to the mix, summer heat can cause severe illness and even death. As it does each summer, OSHA is warning employers to be aware of the signs of heat illness and take precautions, especially during a sudden heat wave when workers might not have had a chance to acclimatize. "Every year, dozens of workers die and thousands more become ill while working in extreme heat or humid conditions," the agency warned on its heat campaign page. "There are a range of heat illnesses and they can affect anyone, regardless of age or physical condition." It lays out employer responsibilities to workers under the general duty clause.
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employers are responsible for providing workplaces free of known safety hazards. This includes protecting workers from extreme heat, the agency stated.
Any employer with workers exposed to high temperatures should establish a complete heat-illness-prevention program, OSHA said. Employers also should:
- Provide workers with water, rest and shade.
- Allow new or returning workers to gradually increase workloads and take more frequent breaks as they acclimatize or build a tolerance for working in the heat.
- Plan for emergencies and train workers on prevention.
- Monitor workers for signs of illness.
Related SHRM Online articles:
CDC Guidance Reiterates Importance of Cloth Face Masks July 6
Employer and Worker Groups Want Government to Enforce Mask Rules, July 14
Masks On? What Employers Need to Know About Face Coverings at Work, June 15